One of the most renowned and beloved writers that were born in Japan is Natsume Sōseki. Born Natsume Kin’nosuke – Soseki was a pseudonym – on February 9, 1867, in Tokyo (then called Edo, he was born in the twilight years of the Tokugawa shogunate. While he was considered Japan’s first English literary scholar after the Japanese government sent him to study in Great Britain, he had a miserable stay in London primarily due to two major maladies: a chronic stomach disorder and a neurotic disorder diagnosed as neurasthenia. Despite his unfortunate two-year stint in London, he returned to Japan immediately kickstarting a literary career. The young Kin’nosuke’s love for literature, after all, began manifesting at an early age. He wrote a variety of works covering different genres such as haiku, renku, and literary sketches which appeared in prestigious literary magazines.
Kin’nosuke’s reputation as a writer reached greater heights with the publication of his first novel Wagahai-wa neko de aru (吾輩は猫である, I Am a Cat), a satirical work. It was published in serial form that ran from 1905 to 1906. It was a critically successful work that endeared him to the reading public and the literary pundits. His succeeding works such as Botchan (坊っちゃん, 1906), and Kusamakura (草枕The Three-Cornered World, 1906) further cemented his status as one of Japan’s finest writers. His legacy is well-recognized, with his debut novel an integral part of modern Japanese early education. Haruki Murakami, one of today’s most globally renowned Japanese writers, has cited Kin’nosuke as his favorite writer.
Despite the passage of time, Kin’nosuke’s works have been gaining more global attention as they have been translated into different languages. Of his oeuvre, one title that is an inherent part of the discussion about his legacy is Kokoro. Originally published in 1914 in serial form in the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun, the novel was narrated by an unnamed narrator. The story commenced with the voice of an unnamed narrator. At the start of the story, he was still a young student. He and his friend were spending the summer holidays at Kamakura; it was his friend’s idea to spend their school break on the seaside. However, the unnamed narrator found himself alone because his friend had to rush back home after receiving a telegram from his family demanding his return home due to an urgent matter.
“The memory that you once sat at my feet will begin to haunt you and, in bitterness and shame, you will want to degrade me. I do not want your admiraton now, because I do not want your insults in the future. I bear with my loneliness now, in order to avoid greater loneliness in the years ahead. You see, loneliness is the price we have to pay for being bron in this modern age, so full of freedom, independencce, and our own egotistical selves.”~ Natsume Sōseki, Kokoro
While he had the option to leave, the main character opted to stay, spending halcyon days swimming under the cerulean summer skies. It was during his swimming trips that one older man, accompanied by a Westerner, caught his attention. There was something about his dignified presence that spoke volumes. The narrator also felt a sense of deja vu: “I could not help feeling that I had seen him somewhere before, but failed to recollect where or when I had met him.” In the ensuing days, he carefully observed them from a distance for the opportunity to approach them just to strike a casual conversation, never presented itself, even after the Westerner left. The older man had this domineering and unsociable facade that made it difficult to approach him.
An opportunity to talk with this older man finally presented itself and it was a chance that the main character was not passing up on. When they started striking conversations, more ensued. Casual conversations slowly turned into an unexpected friendship. The more they talked, the more that the young man was enamored by the older man and his wisdom. He was a man built of different stock, of a different era. The closer they grow, the young man started to fondly call his new friend “sensei”, a term that roughly translates into “teacher”. The local term, however, carries far more implications as a sensei is perceived to possess knowledge that transcends the practical. In the footnotes provided by the translator Edwin McClellan, he explained that the French term maître is a more proximate definition.
The story was divided into three parts, with the first part, aptly titled Sensei and I, exploring the growing relationship between mentor and protege. This was comprised mainly of discourses between the two main characters that transpired in Sensei’s home. When they left Kawakamura and returned to Tokyo, to their normal lives, the young man asked Sensei if he can visit his home to which the Sensei reluctantly agreed. With the passage of time, the two characters got more acquainted; the young man even got to be acquainted with Sensei’s wife. The young man was brimming with enthusiasm, sharing details of himself and his life openly with Sensei. The older man, however, was unable to reciprocate. He kept himself from a distance. He deliberately kept seminal moments of his life from his young friend. The young man’s curiosity, naturally, was piqued.
The contrasts between the two characters set the tone for the rest of the novel. Paradoxes abound the story. The most palpable of which was the generational divide. New ideas were sweeping Japan and this sea of changes was slowly resetting its traditions. In a way, the novel was an indictment of these changes taking place all over the nation. This change was subtly underlined in the opening pages of the story. It was exemplified through the story of the unnamed narrator’s friend who was being arranged by his parents for marriage: “For some time his parents had been trying to persuade him, much against his will, to marry a certain girl. According to our modern outlook, he was really too young to marry. Moreover, he was not in the least fond of the girl.”.
“I looked at everything around me with such obvious shiftiness that I became ashamed of myself. Strangely enough, I became less and less inclined to talk, while my mind and eyes increased their activity enormously. I sat silently at my desk and, like a cat, watched the movements of others ni the house. I was so much on my guard that sometimes I had the grace enough to feel guilty towards them.”~ Natsume Sōseki, Kokoro
This growing generational divide was exacerbated by the transition and the modernization that swept Japan during the Meiji era (1868 to 1912); Sōseki had first-hand accounts of these changes as he grew up witnessing these changes. It was a challenging period as not everyone was willing to embrace the changes. Japan struggled to strike a balance between the traditionalists and the changing attitude of its people driven by the nation’s opening up to the rest of the world. Conflict percolated between those who wanted to preserve the traditions and those who wanted to move forward. This was also a pivotal moment for the Japanese literary movement as this was a period it experienced its own coming-of-age. This period birthed some of the nation’s most revered writers like Sōseki.
The intergenerational changes were captured in the interaction of the main characters and those around them. For one, women had to grapple with what it means to be a lady in modern society, including their changing roles. How the young generation presented themselves was constantly scrutinized by the old vanguard of Japanese culture and tradition. This results in more paradoxical ideas which were further explored through the simplest unit of society, the family. The complexities of family dynamics were captured in the second part of the novel, My Parents and I. The changing role of the family, particularly in shaping the younger generation was vividly depicted. The narrator’s father was the representation of Japanese traditional culture. Subtly woven into the novel’s rich tapestry was the suicide of General Nogi Maresuke immediately following the death of his junshi (master), Emperor Meiji. Prior to his suicide, he wanted to take his life following two major failures on the battlefield only to be ordered to stop by the Emperor; he also made a promise to himself not to outlive the emperor. His action evoked the samurai practice of seppuku ritual suicide.
These paradoxes were best exemplified by the two main characters. In the young narrator, we see a romanticist who was eager to experience a different era. He was, nonetheless, the prototype of the modern Japanese young man: introverted and unmotivated. He was bored and simply drifting, going with the tides of time. With the rapidly changing times, the modern Japanese man was grappling with his and her own identity. The young man was the antithesis of Sensei who was seemingly stuck in a time far from the present. He represented the spirit of the Meiji era but there was a pessimism about him that kept him pushing the younger man aside. As his wife said, he was weary of the world and he was weary of people. With his general distrust of humanity, he wasn’t promoting the idea of the young man looking up to him.
The sources of Sensei’s distrust were elucidated in the last part of the novel, Sensei and His Testament, which came in the form of a confessional. The Sensei’s letter was critical in understanding his very nature. It unpacked several pieces of emotional baggage. It was him finally opening up. In his letter, we read of betrayals in the relationships we make with the people around us, of which he issued a caveat to his protege. We learn of his deepest and darkest secrets, such as the mysterious grave of a friend. Brimming with philosophical intersections and tinges of melancholia, his letter was the novel’s cathartic moment as we read about a vortex of emotions related to isolation, bitterness, guilt, regret, and loneliness.
“It was ths sense of sin that led me to feel sometimes that I would welcome a flogging even at the hands of strangers. When this desire for punishment became particularly strong, I wuld begin to feel that it should come from myself and not others. Then I would think of death. Killing myself seemed a just punishment for my sins. Finally, I decided to go on living as if I were dead.”~ Natsume Sōseki, Kokoro
The writing was cautious but it covered a vast ground of contentious issues. There were discourses on the sanctity of love, the cost of weakness, egoism as compared to shame, and even the indignity of death and sin. Another subject that stood out was the exploration of yet another paradox, the collective versus the importance of one’s self. Essentially, the novel is an existentialist novel as the story of Sensei, his unnamed protege, and another character raised several quandaries regarding life and its very essence, about coexistence and being part of a bigger world. What does it mean to live? How does one move forward? What does it mean to be a good person? These rich discourses gave the story a rich tapestry.
Plot-wise, the novel had very little to offer but it more than made up for it in its exploration of Sensei’s labyrinthine mind and the changing landscape of Japan during and immediately following the Meiji era. Sōseki’s writing flowed, thus creating an atmospheric story. The descriptions of the intricacies of the human experience – from the psychological to the philosophical to the emotional – were beautiful. He did a commendable job of conjuring a feeling of melancholia, particularly through the world of Sensei. Despite the contentious and complex subjects explored in the novel, they were delicately broached by Sōseki, a nod to his capabilities as a writer and storyteller.
Kokoro means the heart of things, aptly capturing the essence of the novel. Heart of things entails getting to a point, about getting purpose. This was vividly depicted in the hallmark of Sōseki’s corpus, through the story of the Sensei and his young protege. Kokoro is an introspective and deep exploration of the human psyche that grappled with several seminal themes, such as family, love, betrayal, friendship, guilt, and redemption. These were explored through paradoxes in different forms of relationships. In all of it, we read of a nation at odds with itself as it slowly enters a pivotal moment in its growth as a nation of the world. It was also an era critical in the growth of Japanese literature. Published two years prior to the untimely death of its author, Kokoro is a literary masterpiece befitting of all the accolades it has received since its publication.
“My own past, which made me what I am , is a part of human experience. Only I can tell it. I do not think that my effort to do so honestly has been entirely purposeless. If my story helps you and others to undestand even a part of what we are, I shall be satisfied.”~ Natsume Sōseki, Kokoro
Characters (30%) – 25%
Plot (30%) – 19%
Writing (25%) – 23%
Overall Impact (15%) – 15%
Japanese literature has certainly become a sort of comfort zone. It has made me discover new writers who gave me distinct and different experiences. One of these writers was Natsume Sōseki. Actually, it was another work of his that caught my attention, I Am A Cat. Ironically, I am yet to read his debut novel although I have read one more book of his, Botchan. Botchan and Kokoro couldn’t be any more contrasting. The former had its fair share of humor and was brimming with incidents. The latter, meanwhile, had a more melancholic atmosphere and was more straightforward. But I like both books equally for they made me taste different flavors of Sōseki’s prose. I do, however, admit that I struggled a bit with Kokoro. It took me some time before I got swept by the story of the mentor and the protege. Sensei is a puzzle at the start which did not help me appreciate the story. His letter, however, provided me a better picture. Despite the challenges, it was a good read once you get into it. Now, the need to read I Am A Cat has tripled. I really want to read the book, and Sōseki’s other works as well.
Author: Natsume Sōseki
Translator (from Japanese): Edwin McClellan
Publisher: Gateway Editions
Publishing Date: May 2018
Number of Pages: 248
Genre: Philosophical Fiction
No collection of Japanese literature is complete without Natsume Soseki’s Kokoro, his most famous novel and the last he completed before his death in 1916. Published here in the first new translation in more than fifty years, Kokoro — meaning “heart” — is the story of a subtle and poignant friendship between two unnamed characters, a young man and an enigmatic elder whom he calls “Sensei”. Haunted by tragic secrets that have cast a long shadow over his life, Sensei slowly opens up to his young disciple, confessing indiscretions from his own student days that have left him reeling with guilt, and revealing, in the seemingly unbridgeable chasm between his moral anguish and his student’s struggle to understand it, the profound cultural shift from one generation to the next that characterized Japan in the early twentieth century.
About the Author
To know more about Natsume Sōseki (夏目 漱石), click here.